October 22, 2016

Nobel Laureate Examines Causes of Heart Attacks, Statin Drugs

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Michael S. Brown, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine with Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein in 1985, shared his research on low-density lipoprotein receptors in cells that sparked developments in combating high cholesterol levels at a lecture Thursday.

Brown stressed the importance of discussing heart attacks, citing it as “the disease that kills about a third of Americans” and “the most common cause of death in the adult society.”

Brown explained that his interest in finding a cure for heart attacks began when he and Goldstein were interning at the National Institute of Health.

“The little girl we saw was hospitalized at the NIH because she was having heart attacks,” he said. “She was six years old and her coronary arteries were blocked by cholesterol … In fact her first heart attack happened when she was three.”

People with this type of genetic mutation have nearly 10 times the normal cholesterol level, according to Brown. He said he and Goldstein discovered that the lipoprotein receptor that helps cells absorb and destroy cholesterol from the blood is missing in people with this mutated gene.

Brown and Goldstein’s work helped to lay the groundwork for a category of drugs called statins, which block the cell’s ability to make cholesterol, increase the number of LDL receptors, lower blood cholesterol and prevent heart attacks. More than 20 million people worldwide are now using statins on a daily basis, according to Brown.

Brown also discussed the importance of diet, citing an experiment he conducted in Dallas. He concluded that a one-time increase in consumption of high cholesterol level foods has no effect on the blood’s cholesterol level. A problem only arises when there is chronic and continuous intake of high cholesterol level foods, he said.

“We took half a dozen medical students and we fed them a breakfast where we gave them half a dozen eggs, half a pound of bacon, and we made a milkshake — putting some eggs in the milkshake too,” he said. “We measured their cholesterol level every hour for the next 24 hours and there was no increase.”

Unfortunately, if statins are administered too late, they make no difference in a person’s longevity, according to Brown. He encouraged students to pursue biomedical research and to help develop a preventive method that can be applied in time to stop heart attacks.

The annual Ef Racker lecture is sponsored by the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics and invites world leaders in biomedical sciences to Cornell. This lecture series has invited many renowned scientists, including Nobel Laureates and those who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.